The Shape of Water,Guillermo del Toro’s dreamy sci-fi tale about a woman who falls in love with a fish-man, has enjoyed a largely controversy-free awards-season campaign as it’s accrued a slew of accolades and earned the most Oscar nominations of any other film this year. The film is all but guaranteed to pick up several of those precious statuettes when the March 4 ceremony rolls around. However, the campaign might have just hit its first major snag: the estate of the late Pulitzer-winning playwright Paul Zindel is claiming that del Toro, who co-wrote the film with Vanessa Taylor and directed it as well, plagiarized a 1969 play by Zindel.
David Zindel, Paul’s son, tells the Guardian that The Shape of Water was “obviously derived* from the play Let Me Hear You Whisper. The similarities do sound striking: the Zindel story is about a gentle cleaning lady who works in a biology lab and makes a connection with one of the dolphins being used for research, learning how to communicate with him. When she learns that the scientists want to dissect the dolphin’s brain, she stages a rescue mission. The Shape of Water has a similar plot; it’s about a mute cleaning lady (played by Sally Hawkins) who works in a lab and makes a special connection with a mythical fish-man. However, more specific plot points diverge from there.
“We are shocked that a major studio could make a film so obviously derived from my late father’s work without anyone recognizing it and coming to us for the rights,” Zindel, who runs his father’s estate, said in an e-mail to the Guardian. He added that he’s been approached by concerned parties “telling us they are struck by the substantial similarities. We are very grateful to Paul Zindel’s fans for bringing this to our attention.”
Fox Searchlight, which distributed the film, released a statement in response: “Guillermo del Toro has never read nor seen Mr Zindel’s play in any form. Mr. del Toro has had a 25-year career during which he has made 10 feature films and has always been very open about acknowledging his influences. If the Zindel family has questions about this original work we welcome a conversation with them.”
Let Me Hear You Whisper was one of Zindel’s earlier works, his former wife, Bonnie Zindel, told the Guardian. He won a Pulitzer shortly afterward for his play The Effect of Gamma Rays on Man-in-the-Moon Marigolds, which was later adapted by 20th Century Fox into a film directed by Paul Newman and starring Joanne Woodward.
As the Guardian points out, del Toro has not mentioned the Zindel play at all during his press tour for the film. Instead, he told the magazine Written By that The Shape of Water was inspired by a conversation with the novelist Daniel Kraus in 2011; Kraus had suggested doing a story about “a janitor that kidnaps an amphibian-man from a secret government facility,” he said. Del Toro took those elements and, with Vanessa Taylor, molded them into a monster love story, which has since inspired fanfare in audiences and critics alike.
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Yohana DestaYohana Desta is a Hollywood writer for VanityFair.com.